Rowing the (half-priced) ranges. Lada Niva and Subaru 1600
Steve Cropley forcing the showdown takes to the wilds by Lada Niva and Subaru 1600 Stand by to be impressed...
THE WORLD WOULD BE A BETTER PLACE IF we could all afford Range Rovers. That way we could all drive about in what is clearly the world's best four-whcol drive estate (and may still be next year, in spite of the most deliberate efforts of Mercedes Bcnz). Of course, the world still wouldn't be a perfect place because Leyland, being Leyland. wouldn't get within a bull's roar of meeting the demand and the old Range Rover black market would bo back, bigger and better than it was in the model's first couple of years. Back in 1970 Rover pioneered the technique of endowing a 4wd vehicle with road behaviour to compare with good saloon cars. In fact, as successive Giant Tests have shown, they went further and produced a vehicle with an almost impossible level of rightness. Even now. the RR's refinements of handling, ride, comfort and performance are as obvious as they ever were.
For the past few years everyone has been cloaning up the on-road act of their 4wd vehicles. Jeep now have a multi-model range of power-steered, auto-transmissioned. soft-seated, tinselled 4wds. Chevrolet have their V8 Blazer, more at home cruising the King's Road than climbing overrocky mountains. Leyland have tarted up tho Land Rover again and dropped in a dotuned-again version of the 3.5litre V8 to improve on-road performance. And Mercedes Benz's first prototype for the G-series must have been built at Solihull. The new car lists are thick with improved 4wds. but all and this includos the Range Rover - have a drawback. They are expensive, from 'quite' to 'very'. An average price is about £10.000 by the time the vehicle is waiting at the kerb. Yet because the extra traction and toughness 4wd offers is rarely needed for more than a few hundred yards at a timo in this country (farm vehicles excepted) the ratio of purchase price to horizontal yards of tough going is ridiculously high. Are there no cheap 4wds which are also civilised on the road?
There are two. and although they arc utterly different in looks they are directly competitive in price, engine capacity and function. Best known is the high-flying Lada Niva, already a star even though first deliveries are only now being made to customers. The Niva is a 1.6litre three-door estate which looks something like a small. Fiat-conceived and Russian built Range Rover. It uses many of the Fiat-derived components from the Lada saloons. It has three differentials and permanent four-wheel-drive, bags of ground clearance, styling which is pretty yet utterly practical and an on-the-road price of bit more than £4000. It is available only with left-hand-drive at present, but that has not hindered orders. The concessionaires say they have a buyer for every Niva they can get.
Second is the ugly duckling Subaru 1600 4wd. derived from Fuji Heavy Industries' ungainly but strongly-built line of 1.6litre front-wheel-drive saloons, coupes, and estates. The Sub looks more like an ordinary car than any other 4wd because it is an ordinary car. albeit with a drive system to its rear wheels and trim which Is durable and less pretty. The five-door costs about £4000 and a pickup around £3700.
Combination of normal car-type front overhang and absence of low-range gear set limits Subaru's progress off-road. It is rugged through, with suspension that can soak up even deep ruts. Typical Jap dash and interior - except for rubber mats and 4wd lever. Subaru's space is limited with cramped back seat and narrow load platform
The Niva is a 'straight' four wheel driver. It sits high on big 16in tyres and has short body overhangs and a stubby, two-box body. It is a tributo to the stylists that tho Niva looks so good because with such body dimensions it could have been really agricultural. The l.6litre engine sits forward inside a powerful unit construction chassis and drives the front and rear wheels through a dual-speed inter-axle differential with a lock to ensure that drive gets to the front and rear differentials equally, when the going gets tough.
Unusually for a 4wd of the Lada's format, it has independent front suspension by double wishbones, coil springs and an anti-roll bar. Power goes to the front wheels through a differential mounted rigidly to the front of the engine. The half-shafts are of a Hardy Spicer design, manufactured under licence at the Lada factory at Togliatti. on the banks of the Volga. The Niva's live rear axle is suspended on long coil springs and located by four longitudinal radius rods and a Panhard rod. visible from the rear, that looks like an out-of-work piece of railway line. Steering is worm and roller, brakes are servoed discs and alloy drums, surprisingly big at both ends. The Niva's compact size is emphasised by an overall length of only 12ft 2m. in spite of its impact-absorbing hydraulic bumpers made of stainless steel which jut out at either end. That's about I4in shorter than an Escort!
The Lada engine is a homely 1,6litre four with a cast iron block based closely on Fiat's original, but with a Russian-designed alloy head running a single overhead camshaft. It is fed by a twin-throat downdraught carburettor and its crankshaft runs in five bearings. The gearbox is pure Fiat, light and fast with a well-defined gate and ratios that work on the road as well as off it. First is low. certainly, but the next two indirects are spaced better than you'd expect in something so rudimentary as a four-wheel-drive vehicle where there is traditionally a yawning gap between second and third. The Niva meets the road with a set of Goodyear 175R15'C' radials of heavy-duty, chunk-tread design. Or at least it will do when supplies of these boots become available. Our test Niva wore 16in bias ply Goodyear Hi miler cross country' tyres which over-geared it and impaired its grip.
The Subaru's mechanicals are unusually arranged. As mentioned it is basically a front-wheel-drive estate car with rear drive fitted almost as an afterthought. The horizontally-opposed. water-cooled engine sits ahead of the front wheels. Alfasud style, and drives them through a four-speed transaxle. The engine is all alloy and has one camshaft that operates the valves by pushrods. it breathes through the inevitable Japanese two-throat, progressive linkage carburettor. Drive for the rear wheels emerges from the back of the transaxle and runs through a propeller shaft to the rigidly mounted rear differential. Four-wheel-drive is engaged with a simple 'in-out' lever next to the gearstick. It can be used at up to 50mph. Because there is no third differential between the front and rear Subaru recommend that 4wd not be used on dry. sealed surfaces.
Big wheels. short overhangs and good ground clearance are exactlу right tor off-road work but Niva's pre gross is limited by poorly gripping cross ply tyros. Tall boxy body moans plenty of room inside Dash - LHD only at present - comes complete with tacho. Levers are tor gears, low tango and dill lock. Niva's roar door leaves high lip
The Japanese car's body layout and its unlovely styling lay it open to criticism. Despite the light weight and space-saving nature of its power pack, the car is narrow and high-waisted. wastes cubic feet of space between front bumper and firewall, has a remarkably small window area for a car of its ideal mechanical layout and offers passenger space which is barely adequate. Yet its suspension deserves plaudits. It is one of a very few four-wheel-drivers which has all-independent suspension, at any price, and the system does have traction advantages. The Subaru has MacPherson struts at the front л-ith an anti-roll bar and drive gets to them through a pair of double-jointed half-shafts. The rear suspension is by trailing arms with torsion bars. The tyres are block-pattern 155SR13 steel belted. Brakes are power discs and drums and the steering is the same rack and pinion that goes into all Subaru's
The Subaru is the lighter of the two by 400lb at 21501b, yet it is more than a foot longer than the Niva at 1311 2in. Of course, it is 4in narrower and 7.8in lower, but it still manages to offer 7.9in of ground clearance - at least that's what the manufacturer claims - which is only a little more than an inch less than the minimum figure claimed for the Russian. The Niva makes up somewhat for its extra weight by packing more power and torque peaks of 78bhp and 88lb/ft against the Subaru's 67bhp and 83lb/lt.
If you still think of Iron Curtain cars as crude or style-less or spartan, think it no more. The Niva has a fully-equipped dashboard (right down to the tachometer which even a Range Rover doesn't have). There is a rear screen demister. rear wash/wiper, cigar lighter, hazard flashers, neat (Fiat inspired) dash air vents and heater controls and a centre console to shroud the three transmission levers (gearbox, diff lock, high/low range) and bind the driver's arena into a neat styling job. The seats arc short in the backs but quite comfortable (though the head restraints are utterly useless) and the rear accommodation is surprisingly good, if rather short on headroom for tall people. With the rear scat up the Niva has only a smallish boot but the bench folds easily (when you know how) and reveals a space which the concessionaires claim is 47cu ft.
The Subaru doesn't do much with its extra foot of length. The front occupants are accommodated snugly in low-sited bucket scats, after they have manoeuvred past the B-pillar which makes entry much more difficult than it should be. The rear accommodation is just adequate for two With the rear seat folded the Subaru does have a considerably longer load area than the Niva - and it is closer to the ground - but it is quite a bit narrower and no more useful than the Russian's load area. A boon, though, is the large one-piece door which opens the rear of the body from floor level and doesn't leave a high lip as the Niva does.
The weather, handily, provided us with excellent test conditions for the Sub and Niva. It is one tning to attack sandhills or bog patches on fine days, for test purposes, but it is quite another to encounter conditions in normal driving where you need 4wd. The plain fact is that in Britain, unless you use a vehicle for farm work, you need a 4wd vehicle very little. But you can use it during a winter such as our last one when ice. snow and slush are everywhere and when the banged-up conventional cars are ranked three-deep outside the crash repairers. So we spent a day driving around a corner ot Wiltshire after one of the winter's most severe snowfalls. A lot of it was on tracks which had not been trafficked at all since the snow began. The rest was on snow compacted into a rink for cars. At first we used the Niva to lead everywhere, presuming that its abilities would far outweigh those of the Sub. After all. the Japanese car was low and unconventional and ugly and had no low-range. There was no reason to suppose it was more than a joke 4wd.
The Niva pretty soon showed that its bias-ply tyres were a serious disadvantage. It had plenty of ground clearance and showed the potential to be highly manoeuvrable by virtue of its short overhangs and wheel base. But the wheels would lock rather easily under brakes, despite the fact that torque from the engine reaches both ends, and on really slippery surfaces it would understeer strongly because the tyres simply had insufficient grip to deflect the front of the car onto a new heading. At the same time, the Niva displayed very good balance on surfaces which were simply slippery, responding with neatness and accuracy to movements of its light (for a 4wd) steering. We became convinced that the Niva was an excellent vehicle, let down by its tyres which would simply not reach down and grip. The engine has some foibles, we found. It lugs quite well for a short-stroke unit, but there is a point at about 1500rpm below which it just will not operate. The power just falls off and the engine svill stall, or at least threaten to. unless the clutch is disengaged like lightning. Annoying. On the other hand, the transmission is brilliant. The gearbox is light, fast and accurate and has ratios which arc fine for both road and rough-track. The high/low range lever is supposed to be used when the Niva is stationary but it's quite all right to double it on the move, provided your timing is OK. It's a similar feeling to double-declutching a car of old design into first gear. The Niva's ride is far bolter than expected. There are few of the jolts and jarrs one oxpects from a toughly-sprung vehicle whose driver sits so high above the road. And there is an eery lack of suspension noise. When the radial tyres are available, it will take a very good, very sophisticated 4wd to do a better job.
On the road, it deserves praise of the same order Around town the acceptably light steering, the mild, secure understeer of the drive-at-both-ends configuration and the superb visibility make it first class transport. The engine, redlined at 5500rpm. can get rather loud and our test Niva had a really rough period at about 2200-2500rpm in the lower gears, but that seems a non standard feature. At a cruise, the Niva consumes motorway at 70-75mph without effort. There is some wind roar and hum from the tyres, and ruts across the road cause it some upset but it is certainly streets ahead of many more expensive 'agricultural* 4wds. You really could see yourself driving it from London to Glasgow and back by motorway. There are better vehicles to do it in. but there are also far. far worse ones.
The Subaru was a surprise. Quite soon on our tour of the snow-blocked roads of Wiltshire it displayed superior grip and quite excellent traction and directional stability. Its tyres - chunk-tread 155 x 13 steel radials -were far better suited to it than the Niva's and they made driving it a simple process of pointing with the front wheels and saying go there' with the accelerator. The engine was at its happiest when revving but it showed a wilingness to lug which we had not expected. Most marked was the improvement in its stability on ice in the 4wd mode, compared with front-wheel-drive only. It tracked dead straight with both ends driven and could even be cornered neutrally on packed snow with real enthusiasm. But it had two drawbacks. First gear was just too high. Really tough obstacles - deep ruts, snow drifts or short, sharp folds in the ground - needed to be attracked at too-high a speed because the engine would not stay on the boil at really low speeds. The Subaru does not necessarily need a complete low-range like the Niva. but it badly needs a crawler gear. Subaru already make a five-speed gearbox for their coupes; one of those with an extra-low first could be ideal. Or would the additional torque be too much for the axles? At the limit. the Subaru also lacked ground clearance. The hefty sump guard yvould ground on obstacles when that happened firmly enough, progress came to an abrupt halt.
In general use the Subaru is no more than a a Japanese estate car funny looking and shightly more raucous than most because of its rubber mats and the fact that you need to work its detuned engine to stay with the traffic. That it is an all wheeler is only betrayed by some exterior badges and the skinny 'in-out' lever that protrudes from the transmission hump.
to the left of the gear lever. It is a firmly susspended little tool, but it has reserves of suspension travel which are never likely to be used on ordinary roads. Even when driven quite hard over close-ploughed fields the suspens'on shows no sign of bottoming.
On the motorway it is willing to sit at an indicated 80mph (75-76mph true) and still allow occupants to talk normally. It is not t he quietest of small estate cars, but it seems a littlе quieter than the Niva at the same speeds, Surprisingly. the sound nearly all comes from thе mechanicals. There is little road noise. The climax of our test was a hill climb. Mr Nichols remembered a long, little used track of gradually increasing slope running the best part of a mile up through a small pinch at nalf-distance to the brow shining out of the gloom of the still snow-laden sky. it was the simplest and fairest of comparison tests, Neither Niva or Subaru made it to the top. The Niva, limited by its tyres, stopped where the slope became too great and gravity overcame grip. The Subaru stopped when the snow, packing tight under its sump guard, became just too deep. Interestingly, the two stopped at the same spot - for different reasons. On that day there wasn't a winner. But the climb was an ample demonstration of their abilities, nevertheless. The Niva. wearing radial tyres with proper snow-grip, could have driven onward. Nothing but a winch or a lot of men with shovels would have helped the Sub.
The Niva showed that it is a 4wd of rare ability in the rough and that the compromise its designers have struck between roadability and toughness is very, very good. At the price it is a sensation. The question for 4wd anthusiasts will not be whether to buy. but how to find one of the 'selected' Lada dealers who have one of the initial batch not already committed to someone else. The Subaru, ...gliness and wastefully designed body not withstanding, showed it was a serious 4wd. with ruggedness and ability far beyond its appearances. And that is the last conclusion we had expected to make.
"CAR" magazine, 1979